Coward’s Blithe Spirit is delivered with style and panache by this summer theatre company. With period costumes by Miri Birch and a set built and designed by Alan Horne the visuals and special effects entertain. Side voids and a distant upstage dining room give depth to the acting space, while its ethereal bluish hue and lingering smoke filled atmospheres suggest the chill of the afterlife. The plays sense of middle class verisimilitude is countered by the feel of a forties Britain haunted by the spectre of those who have gone before us, but rather than being sombre and reverential Coward’s affable dabble with the afterlife is not so much about remembrance but endurance.
Phil Clark directs Blithe Spirit with vision and strong intent and with this dynamic acting company the piece rolls along; crisp in delivery and suitably mannered in performance. As Coward’s pithy epithets and witty reposts capture a time gone by where war torn Britain needed a distraction, the rather crotchety self serving socialite author, Charles Condomine (played with great verve by Charles Davies) ends up with more than he bargained for when he invites a clairvoyant around for an evening’s entertainment. He is soon driven to distraction by trying to keep the ghost of his deceased first wife happy while at the same time trying to appease the second Mrs. Condomine who is very much alive – it’s a mix that throws up malice and misogyny, attraction and devotion to humorous effect.
Their dining companions, the Bradmans serve as a foil, with their steady village quality of interest and indiscretion. Barbara Horne and Michael Shaw playfully interpret Coward’s satirical comedy of marriage and manners as they assuredly hit the right note of doubt and amazement. They are entertained by Madame Arcati, the clairvoyant who was brought in from the village to organise a séance. Considered an eccentric and enthusiast Arcati is none the less more powerful than she is given credit for, as she facilitates the arrival of not one spirit but two! Tessa Wojtczak conjures and cajoles the spirit world with comedic aplomb and as she bridges the earthly and the ethereal spheres her antics are increasingly amusing.
Rosanna Miles plays the ghostly Elvira with a stylish fluent physical manner that commands the stage and indeed the attention of Charles. Her malice is bewitching as she flirts and flits from one world to the next. However, she has met her match with the excellent Imogen Slaughter, playing the confused and abused second wife Ruth. Slaughter clips and snips her way through the scenes with a period charm and eloquence that lifts Cowards lines from the page. Ruth is no push over and as these redoubtable women fight for the charms of Charles even more fun is to be had when the after life outstays its welcome.
Coward gives us everything form haughty leading ladies, to over bearing men and maids that know more than they let on. Charlotte Peak, as they long suffering maid treads carefully between the comic and the earnest with a delightful payoff in the final act. And that final act, with its special stage effects clearly delighted the first night audience.
The theatre season has begun and judging from this opening night all bodes well for the summer in Aldeburgh this year. Blithe Spirit plays at the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh 23rd July – 31st August – a spirited tale worth catching.